All posts by Chelsea Schmitt

Q&A: What You Bring To A Fight Scene Creates excitement

geek-bait said to howtofightwrite: I’m having trouble writing a fight scene. I feel like I’m either going too fast and it’s all a blur or that the flow is choppy and awkward and I can’t quite figure out how to make it work better. Is there any advice as to how to get the right pacing and still make the scene…exciting?

Writing violence is a lot like writing romance, what you bring to it is more exciting than the violence itself. The fight scene, like a sex scene, acts as both culmination and catharsis for all the work you did setting the up the battle. You need your audience emotionally invested in the fates of these characters. If your fight scene is not acting as a culmination, as set up for bigger problems down the line, as a jumping off point which leads us somewhere new, then the scene itself can fall flat.

On a mechanical level, you need two things to really make fight scenes work, clear visual description and strong stakes.

If you’re fight scene is going in a blur, it might be because you either don’t have the intricacies of what’s physically happening in the fight or you’re trouble is you can’t clearly convey the events happening on the page. Your brain is trying to cheat around that lack of knowledge. This is a description issue more than a pacing issue. This is solved by learning more about the subject you’re trying to write. You can’t structure a fight that makes sense without understanding the mechanics of violence, and you can’t describe those mechanics if you don’t know what they look like, feel like, or sound like.

The pacing problem is different and ultimately up to the discretion of the author. The way I structure pacing in violent sequences depends on the one who is winning, the one who controls the flow controls the fight. The one who is winning controls the pace of the fight, because violence is about taking control, and forcing your opponent to go at your pace. This way, you expend less energy, allowing yourself to fight longer. You can maneuver them into a bad position which is beneficial for yourself.

A strong character who is a good combatant will take control of the narrative pace. While this is often the villain, if your other characters don’t fight for control of the pace then the scene’s action will run according to the victor’s wishes. The pace can speed up or slow down based on emotional responses of the other characters to what’s happening around them, but the scene’s actual underscoring tension and the pace of the action end up hinging on the decisions of the character currently in control.

You can set this up by using standard narrative beats, and its a good idea to familiarize yourself with different genres so you can switch up your pacing style as needed.

Katie stalked onto the ballroom floor. Pushing through the crowd, she strode past the bodies of the fallen pieces and stepped onto the chessboard.

“Hey!” the blonde vampire controlling the white side yelled.

Katie’s eyes rose, locking onto the balcony on room’s far side. There. Five vampires significantly older than all the others. She’d been under observation in the capstone, and from the moment she’d stepped out of Giancarlo’s car. They were still watching her. When under observation by a skilled strategist, every action she took betrayed some facet of herself.

You cannot decide the mistakes of others. Bait them with your actions.

Her lips curled.

“Katie!” Nadia yelled.

Katie’s eyes flicked up and to the left, watching a knight in poorly fitted armor brought his sword down toward her head — a boy moving in slow motion. She stepped to the side, staying within her square, and let him stumble past.

He landed with a loud clang, rattling metal. His sword’s point struck the floor.

Katie rested her hand on the back of his helmet.

The boy turned, staring up at her with wide brown eyes.

“No one ever taught you to use that weapon,” Katie said.

His jaw clenched.

“Get off the board!” the blonde vampire in white yelled.

The vampire dressed in black and red on the board’s other side stroked his jaw, watching his opponent. His right hand drummed on the arm of his chair.

Every species had their tells, Katie remembered. With humans, it was often physical. Where they looked, where they didn’t, the tenseness in their fingers, their shoulders, the skin around their eyes. The difference between a vampire and the average human was experience.

The boy lifted his sword. He spun, right foot outside his square as he lunged at her.

Katie caught his blade, forcing the scales under her skin to recede, allowing the point to pierce a human palm. Her nerves screamed as she forced the sword up and splattered her blood across the checkered floor.

“Katie!” Nadia yelled.

The vampires in the room lifted their heads. Their eyes changing as they scented her blood. Both the vampire in white and the vampire in red stood. The audience lingering by the tables shifted closer. The elders on the balcony moved to the balustrade.

Katie seized the blade’s hilt, knocking the boy to the ground. “Stay down.”

The vampire in white leapt first.

She raised the sword, electricity racing up the steel in jagged lines. Blue light combined at the blade’s tip. Thunder rolled in the skies above the mansion’s domed ceiling. Lightning cracked the black clouds, spearing downwards. It pierced the roof’s shingles and blasted through in a blaze of blue-white light. The marble ceiling exploded. Crystal chandeliers crashed to the floor.

The vampires in the crowd stumbled and screamed, the humans they’d used as pieces on their chessboard scattering.

Katie closed her eyes and the world snapped into focus. Not one, but many. Everywhere. There were thirty vampires and she was with them all. Everywhere at once. Katie cut down the vampire in white. She cut down the vampire in black. The vampires in the crowd fell simultaneously, as did the vampires by the stage. The vampires in ballgowns, those in fancy dress, and the four elders on the balcony. Standing with the fallen vampires above the ballroom, she lay her blade against the throat of the fifth.

“H-h-how?” The elder said, clutching the golden cross hanging around his neck.

“You annoyed me,” Katie said.

Wake the Dead – by C.E. Schmitt and Michael J. Schwarz

Your pacing is ultimately dependent on your characters, their behavior, and their choices, which should already be built up by their surrounding narrative. When faced with a violent scenario, they’re going to be who they are and utilize the tools they have access to. The excitement of the scene comes from what these characters choose to do, the circumstances surrounding them, their desires, and the fallout from or consequences of their actions. If this scene doesn’t lead somewhere, affect something, or cause change in the narrative then it will end up being superfluous.

What you’re missing in the scene above is an entire novel’s worth of setup. You see a character using their superpowers to win a fight. You don’t see a character who is carefully balancing their personal goals (catching up with their sibling before their sibling gets eaten) and the expediency of ending the current threat against immediate responsibilities they’ll have to take up once they fully realize who they are (and why they have those powers.) Who Katie is drives her to make choices which put her off her goal. She uses her powers to save time and make up the difference, but every fight, every resulting conversation, every interaction with the world brings Katie a step closer to failure.

Your scene doesn’t need to be big, things don’t need to explode, people don’t need to die in order for the sequence to be exciting. However, each individual fight scene does need to have meaning and move your story forward toward your narrative goal.

This is where your narrative’s stakes really do matter, both the overarching stakes and your character’s personal goals. What are they losing when they’re winning? What will they do in order to win? What will they sacrifice? What are the choices they make? What options are closed off as a result?

It’s easy to confuse your fight scene as being a separate component from your story, to get so wrapped up in the techniques and cool moves to forget about the people behind them. It takes a lot of practice before you get good at writing the spectacle similar to what’s seen in movies, but it’s not as difficult to bring your characters into the scene. Even if your audience believes victory is certain, even if they are up against an enemy they outclass, how the character goes about winning can be exciting all by itself.

Your fight scenes should be cumulative expressions of your character’s identity as they utilize the skills and tools at their disposal. Examples of their morals, their values, their intelligence, their cleverness, and their problem solving abilities. Violence creates more issues than it solves. Skill at combat will change the way your characters are viewed by those around them, for the better or for worse. How will other characters respond when faced with a new threat to their power and control? Is the violence brought by your characters in this scene enough to cause another character to worry and plot their demise? What results from it? Maybe they’re banned from the tavern for life. What do they give away about themselves that an enemy down the line can use against them?

Going back to the example, Katie is a character who lives in a world where information is a commodity. What you choose to do and the way you choose to do it can give away a lot about who you are, how you operate, who trained you, what your abilities are, and what your limits are. Even when you win, you can lose out by giving future opponents insight. The danger can go from non-existent and ratchet up to immediate death very quickly if you misjudge what you’re dealing with. On top of everything else in the scene, you have a character making a calculated choice to put expediency ahead of their own safety for a definitive win.

There are plenty of people who’ll tell you a one-sided fight can’t be interesting, but it can be in the context of its narrative. Your protagonist losing a fight can be more fascinating than two characters evenly matched duking it out. I always approach fight sequences from the perspectives of the characters, what they’re trying to accomplish, and the solution they’ve chosen as their means of victory. You should always treat your scenes as mattering to the character’s future, even if that future won’t go on much longer or the novel will soon be over.

So what are the circumstances surrounding your fight scene? Are you clearly describing the actions these characters take? Is their reasoning clear? Or, at least, interesting? Do you care about what happens to them? Have you left open an option for them to lose, or have you already decided on a winner? Are the characters making use of the skills and talents you’ve shown earlier in the work? Do their decisions match up with what we know about them? Do they expand or provide insight to their values, their skills, and their flaws?

At some point, it’ll happen the way it happens. If no amount of small tweaks make it better and you’re still unhappy, then look at the bigger structural issues and the characters themselves. Address if they’re acting in a way that’s natural for them or if they’re out of character.

Lastly, be honest with yourself about the kind of dangers your characters are facing in their fight scene. Their behavior is dependent on their knowledge of the present danger. A character who takes on eldritch abominations in single combat isn’t going to be fussed by fighting a few vampires, and that will lead to them making very different choices from someone who could be ripped apart in a few seconds.

For clarification, the writing example used in this post was written by me and Starke.

-Michi

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Q&A: Just Make It Their Phys Ed Class

Kids in my story are taught flashy stage staff fighting to build endurance, confidence and coordination. They complain about it and are told if they can successfully master a complex method of not hurting each other, then the simple methods of real staff fighting should be fairly easy later on. Would this be realistic? Not talking child soldiers, just kids who think they’re getting dumbed-down lessons.

No, it’s not realistic and, in this context, the kids would be right. They are being lied to by their teachers.

That’s the short answer. The long answer is a much more complicated discussion about stage fighting versus real fighting, how you get children to learn, and the very real question of how you intend to sell flashy stage fighting that looks really cool as something that’s boring. I can already tell from the way you’ve structured your question that you’re looking for a “safe” way to get what you want i.e “cool” staff fighting without having to answer questions about how one responsibly trains kids to use weapons. Kids training on staves is realistic because it does happen in modern American suburbia without the drugs, the abuse, or the mental scarring, or the shitty Hollywood Orientalism.

Now, let’s start with stage fighting. There’s two kinds of stage fighting. One is actual stage fighting and the other is martial arts choreography which is in the category of stunt work. They’re in the same field but you don’t get to both from the same place. You can learn the first kind of stage fighting without learning anything about martial arts, this usually gets rolled into a side note course in theater classes. The second kind works best if you have a solid base in martial arts to start off with because it draws off real techniques. In both cases, stage fighting relies on making big eye-catching motions that are visibly distinct and easy to see which is the exact opposite of what you want from practical combat.

The first kind of stage fighting is what we’ll call, “The Art of Whiffing While Looking Good”. The looking good part relies on you only looking at the motions from a specific line of sight otherwise you’ll be able to see them miss by a mile. It’s all about big, eye-catching motions that work as slight of hand to convince the audience that something is happening which isn’t. It is a real art form, one which takes a lot of skill and control to be good at in the upper echelons of professional stunt actors, but it’s not real. Lots of people mistake this for being “safe” fighting. It is the same as a magician’s stage trick. There are plenty of theater kids who do think that learning stage sword fighting means they can fence. (We’ve gotten questions from a young fencer before about their theater friend who always wanted to fight them with a sword, and how they didn’t want to. The reasons should be obvious.)

If you teach stage fighting to kids first then it will actually be much harder for them to learn the real thing later. You’d have to completely retrain them from the ground up, retrain their foundation, their reflexes, their stances, their ability to apply power. On top of that, you’d have to give them real endurance training too, which is the actual boring part of martial arts training all the kids complain about.

Now, if you’re thinking about the fight sequences choreographed and performed by actual martial artists, then that’s just martial arts. The kids won’t be good at this “stage fighting” unless they master the techniques underlying it… which is again martial arts. This would undercut them if your end goal is for them to actually be able to effectively use a staff in combat because skill in the substance is what makes you good at the flash.

The basic rule is you can’t train people to whiff and then expect them to be able to hit things. You have to train them to hit things first, then you can teach them how to whiff. (You already taught them to whiff while you were training them to hit things, because they spent a lot of time practicing not hitting things or hitting things gently at different stages while learning to hit things full force. This is where the real control comes from.)

Kids can’t initially tell the difference between flash and substance. You can use that flash as the carrot to get them excited about learning and to push them into applying themselves through the boring, repetitive parts. You can hold out the cool technique as the reward for wind sprints until they reach a point where what’s hard becomes enjoyable. You’ve got to be careful with this method though, because what kids can do is smell bullshit. As an authority figure you need to maintain their trust.

You can’t continue to sell stage fighting as a pathway to real martial arts if your students get exposed to the real thing. As a writer, you shouldn’t be so terrified of the child soldier specter that you think learning violence has to be all or nothing. Also, that’s not what a child soldier is. Child soldiers are kids who’ve been stolen from their families, given very little training, hopped up on drugs, and sent out to die. Conflating a child soldier with an Olympian judoka or just a regular six year old practicing martial arts for forty-five minutes three days a week disrespects everyone. Martial arts training is not by its nature abusive or dangerous for children.

This scenario reads like you’re looking for a roundabout way to get what you want while avoiding both the idea of kids learning about violence and the necessary repetitive, boring parts which make up the bulk of martial arts training.

Violence is very boring, and learning to do violence is even more so. You learn your new technique in pieces. You practice the pieces separately. You put the pieces together into a single bodily motion. You practice this for a while, then with a partner where you never touch each other but get used to the idea of spacing. Then, then, then you get to use slowly, carefully, and with great patience on the other person. Depending on the associated danger, the other person might be wearing a lot of padding. You get your cool technique moments interspersed between hours, and hours, and hours, and even more hours of repetition. You will practice the same techniques over and over and over again until you can do them in your sleep. When you’re not doing that, you’re doing your conditioning which is your pushups, your sit ups, your wind sprints, your mile-runs, etc. When you’re not doing either of those things, you’re stretching.

The average, recreational martial arts school is like PE class, except more fun. In fact, martial arts does get offered as Physical Education in some schools. I took Shotokan in college.

The mistake a lot of people who never practice martial arts make is the assumption that learning about violence inevitably makes people more violent. This is actually not true. Kids who learn martial arts are much less likely to mess around and use those skills outside of class than, say, the theater kids who learned stage fighting. Stage fighting is safe, so this leads to them more likely getting overconfident with it and practicing outside adult supervision. Kids who practice martial arts learn very quickly that martial arts can result in them or someone else getting hurt if they make a mistake, and the result is they become more responsible about using the skills that they acquire.

Real violence needs to be respected for the harm it can cause. Teaching someone “safe” violence sends the wrong message, and this scenario you’ve concocted is actually more likely to result in these kids hurting each other outside of where the adults can see. They were taught they couldn’t be hurt by the techniques they learned, so why not use them?

The irony here is that the real thing is actually safer for them and better for achieving all the things they’re supposed to be learning from it than the fake thing. It’s also more honest.

They also still won’t be able to whip around and take on a Navy SEAL because all martial arts training is not the same.

You’d be better suited to having these kids learn recreational martial arts which is martial arts training dedicated to health and exercise than stage fighting if what you want them to develop is endurance, confidence, and coordination. At the end of the day, martial arts is just sports and it fits as easily into your average PE class as baseball, soccer, dodgeball, and football. Most martial arts classes don’t run longer than a conventional PE period anyway. Wealthier schools often offer various extra class types for the kids who don’t want to do general Physical Education. It wouldn’t be a difficult sell that these kids’ school has that option, where you could sign up for fencing, karate, or taekwondo rather than taking the general. You also don’t run into the problem of asking, “do their parents know about this?” because their parents already signed the waiver.

I took Shotokan in college. I grew up next door to Stanford University, where they offered a whole slew of special programs and afternoon activities in the summer for kids that included fencing. These kinds of activities are a lot more common than you might imagine in the places where they can afford it.

If you’re serious about writing this story, I suggest hitting up your local YMCA or youth center and seeing what they offer as programs for kids during the summer. You might be surprised what you find.

-Michi

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Q&A: Never to Late to Start

I want to learn a martial art but I am 25. I feel like I’m too old to train my body for something new. I even tried to take figure skating classes a year ago and it was embarrassing and frustrating. Everyone who great at something seemed to learn when they were kids. I read books all day and do well with learning new intellectual things but struggle with learning new physical skills.

Twenty-five is not too young. I’ve seen people get their black belts in their eighties, I’ve seen cancer survivors get their black belts, one of my major training partners for my third degree black belt was a woman in her mid forties who’d survived a stroke and the other was a man in his late forties/early fifties. Dave went on to get his fourth degree, and is still a part-time instructor at our martial arts school to this day. He got into martial arts because of his kids, and stayed long after they quit because he loved it.

Believe it or not, most martial arts masters and instructors at most schools actually started in their late teens/early twenties. You get the rare ones who start when they’re five or twelve, but most of the ones who start as kids eventually quit. They lose interest, and go on to do something else.

You’re not going to get past the embarrassing and frustrating part if you’re embarrassed by struggling, nothing regarding physical activity is going to click quickly. Training your body to do something new takes time. Realistically, in a recreational martial arts school where you train three days a week for forty-five minutes to an hour a day, the techniques will start to click about three months after you start. That’s if you’re consistent with showing up to training, and if you try hard. At two years, the techniques are going to feel good and you’ll be limber enough/coordinated enough to start doing them well. Four years to six years in is when you usually test for your first black belt, so that’s when you actually start getting good.

However, it’s only embarrassing and frustrating if you let it be.

There’s a real reason why willpower and fortitude are the most admired traits in martial arts. You don’t give up in the face of adversity. Mostly, this is a learned skill. The vast majority of people who start give up within the first three months. They get frustrated and they get bored because they’re not progressing fast enough. Physical activity is the beast where the conditioning part feels miserable until you reach a point where your body clicks, you plateau, it gets easy, and then you start all over again. There are no short cuts, you just have to do it.

It’s important to remember that the stunt actors you see in the movies have made martial arts and martial arts choreography their careers. The people you see who started as kids have all been doing this for anywhere between five to fourteen years depending on how old they are now. You don’t get to see how they looked when they started out, which most of them will admit was pretty terrible in comparison to what you’re currently seeing.

You’ve got to give yourself permission to suck. Give yourself permission to say, “yeah, I’m doing okay.” Realize everyone you train with has been where you are, at the beginning, at the bottom of the mountain and intimidated by the climb. It’s going to take awhile for your body to catch up to what your mind imagines, and you probably won’t be able to do a high kick day one. Or day two, or by day three. It takes time for your body to build up coordination, to develop your balance, and work on your flexibility.

Be honest with yourself about what you really want from the martial art experience. There’s nothing to stop you at twenty-five from eventually competing on the martial arts circuit if that’s what you want, but if you just want to practice recreationally or get skills for self-defense then try not to beat yourself up for not being Jet Li.

Focus on the progress you are making, rather than what you’re not doing right. Try to have fun. Find a good, supportive community, most martial arts schools aren’t what people imagine. They’re family affairs with people who start from all different ages and are from different walks of life. They’re communal, rather than competitive. They’ll push you to find the best version of yourself, if you’re willing to put in the time.

Learning not to be immediately discouraged by something your not immediately good at is difficult. It may take a few tries to find a martial art and a school which fit you. I can’t promise the experience won’t be frustrating at times and occasionally embarrassing because it is, you’re going to fall down even when you’re really good. You’ll get sweaty, and gross, and your face will be a red mess, you’ll get out of breath, you can pull muscles, even break bones. There will be days when you want to quit, want to give up. However, there’s no better feeling that conquering your own body. No better feeling than conquering your fear. The sensation you get where everything just clicks into place, and just works is great. The point where it stops being hard and starts really feeling good? The fantastic thud of landing a powerful kick on the training pads? Those are the moments you live for.

Martial arts is a fun, rewarding experience. Martial arts is for everyone willing to put in the effort. There is no cut off, only the hurdles you build in your own mind and your own perceptions. Ultimately, life is what we make it. Training in martial arts, what you’ll eventually learn is, most of the time, the only thing stopping you is you.

So, don’t let fear, frustration, or embarrassment stop you from getting what you want. The only way to know is to start, stick with it, and not give up if studying your martial art is what you want to be doing. Also, study a martial art you’re actually interested in because that’s half the initial battle.

-Michi

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Q&A: Looking for A Man to Die for All the Wrong Reasons

kradeiz said to howtofightwrite: I just read your ‘Emotions are not a Weakness’ post and found it very illuminating, especially its analysis of ATLA’s themes of enlightenment and martial arts. I was curious, at one point you say, “Aang defeating the Firelord through violence at the end of ATLA is actually a failure by the narrative to understand its own genre inherited themes.” Going off the themes the series was trying to convey, what might’ve been a more appropriate way for Aang to stop the Firelord?

By living up to the Airbender’s ideals and philosophies of pacifism, using that genuine optimism and hope for change to break the cycle of destruction. Remember, Aang is supposed to be the setting’s version of the Dalai Lama and Baguazhang is a martial art dedicated to introspection, peace, and seeking enlightenment through harmony between body and spirit.

Think of Luke Skywalker throwing aside his lightsaber at the end of Return of the Jedi, facing the Emperor and saying, “I’m not going to fight you.”

As the Dalai Lama says, “The true hero is one who conquers his own anger and hatred.”

Mastery in the martial arts is not the mastery of techniques, but mastery of the self. You reach a point where you can no longer just focus on the techniques themselves, but their use and their purpose in the world. You must consider yourself, who you become when you use them, and the affect they have on others. In the real world, you will eventually be forced to face the consequences of your own actions. Not just your suffering, but the pain you inflict on others both intended and unintended. Martial training gives you real power and control over your environment, and, in the face of grief and suffering, will ultimately teach you how powerless you really are.

Upfront, violence often seems like a great solution to your problems. However, you quickly learn its only good for short term solutions and causes more problems than it solves through unintended consequences. You can go to war for the right reasons, but war creates an endless cycle of more war. Pain and suffering, anger, fear, and hatred breed more in others, including the desire to inflict their own suffering back on you. In the small globe, this is how children who are abused grow up to become abusers. We put this thirst for vengeance, control, and power on the large scale by many people who have experienced the same thing, who want the same thing, and who go out to get it. “I need to make them hurt like I’ve been hurt.”

You can win battles, but not forever. You can win the war, but not forever. You have until the next generation grows up or your enemy rebuilds their forces, and then the cycle begins again.

The discussion of how you should behave when you have this power has birthed thousands of philosophies in both the East and the West dedicated to responsible use of force. This discussion is the central focus of many martial arts adventure narratives because our response to the journey, what we learn through our successes and failures is the crux of truly attaining wisdom.

One of the most common themes of the martial arts adventure is the great warrior becoming the great sage. Through the adversity he faces and the suffering he witnesses (and causes), the warrior comes to the realization that violence no matter one’s intention merely contributes to more violence and that the means of achieving lasting change comes from changing hearts.

“I cannot control who others choose to be, only myself.”

Aang as the Avatar with his mystical spiritual powers should have a means of reaching Ozai and give him the opportunity to change where no one else can. He could find the Fire Lord, together with Zuko and Iroh, and bring him to face with the harm he’s caused. The harm he’s spent his life insulated from. Aang never seeks to understand the human in the evil, what drove Ozai to murder his father, steal his brother’s birthright, drive away his wife, to abuse his children. Aang never sees himself in Ozai, sees in him the dark mirror of what he could become and what he has personally done which echoes the Fire Lord’s own behavior.

There are shades of Ozai in Aang because there are shades of Ozai in all of us. Who we are is not determined by what we are, nor by the place in society to which we are born, but in who we’ve chosen to be.

The Dalai Lama says, “When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways – either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.”

Pacifism takes real strength because kindness and compassion are easy to pay lip service to, but difficult in practice. Not harming those who’ve hurt you, seeking to understand them even as you hold them accountable is difficult. To not say, “it’s okay for me, but not you” and instead say, “it’s not okay, period” is hard. Approaching the world openly and honestly, seeking to see clearly even in the face of disappointment, pain, and prejudice is difficult.

We see Aang pay lip service to the ideals, but when push comes to shove he abandons them in favor of lashing out at the world around him. An example is the Sand Benders after stealing his flying bison Appa, Aang loses his head and attacks them. He drives away the people who hurt him, first destroying their sand barges (their means of surviving in the desert) and then enters the Avatar State to punish them some more all at the cost of finding Appa more quickly. Lashing out in violence to punish someone for hurting you feels good, but ultimately the one who truly suffers for Aang’s choice is Appa himself.

(The realization of the consequences of his actions in this case is not a plot point in Avatar leading to self-reflection and eventual change, but an excuse to force the Gaang to travel on foot.)

One of the core problems of Avatar: The Last Airbender is that neither the narrative nor Aang ask what it means to be the Avatar, it never asks what being the Avatar means to Aang, never seeks to ask if Aang or the Avatar are truly necessary for the health of the world, and really doesn’t want to ask if Aang as the Avatar is necessary at all. It states that he is, but never wrestles with why.

Why is killing the Fire Lord wrong? If you’re answer is because killing is wrong, again, ask yourself why. Why is killing wrong? If you’re answer is… it just is, you need to think on it some more.

There’s a bigger question though at the heart of this question, which is, “what are you willing to die for?”

Delenn: If I fall, another will take my place, and another, and another.

Sebastian: But your great cause!

Delenn: This is my cause–Life! One life or a billion, it’s all the same!

Sebastian: Then you make the sacrifice willingly? No fame. No armies or banners or cities to celebrate your name. You will die alone and unremarked and forgotten.

Delenn: This body is only a shell. You cannot touch me, you cannot harm me. I’m not afraid.

[after Delenn offers to sacrifice herself for Sheridan, who’s being tortured by Sebastian]

Sebastian: You can go. You’ve passed, both of you.

Delenn: Passed what?

Sebastian: How do you know the Chosen Ones? “No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for his brother.” Not for millions… not for glory… not for fame. For one person, in the dark, where no one will ever know or see. I have been in the service of the Vorlons for centuries, looking for you. Diogenes with his lamp, looking for an honest man willing to die for all the wrong reasons. At last, my job is finished. Yours is just beginning. When the darkness comes, know this: You are the right people, in the right place, at the right time.

-Babylon 5, “Comes the Inquisitor”

The great leader is not one who wins by strength of arms, but from their ability to inspire change in others. When the hero falls, a hundred will stand up where he or she fell to face the darkness in their place. To carry on their values into a new generation. The hero’s legacy will outlast them.

The Avatar shouldn’t be necessary for policing peace in the world because the world should be able to police itself by following their example. If the Avatar is necessary as a club to enforce good behavior from the surrounding countries and the countries aren’t really able to band together in order to defend their people after he disappears, then the system wasn’t sustainable to begin with.

If Aang cannot defeat, make peace with, face, or even acknowledge his own darkness, how can he help someone else defeat the darkness within themselves? How can he inspire someone to face theirs?

Telling someone what is right and expecting them to change because you said so doesn’t work, the only people who will listen are the ones who already agree with your perspective. Being sympathetic to their plight, showing them compassion when they don’t expect it, understanding the source of their struggle, and recognizing the pain lying behind bad behavior does work when it comes to changing hearts. Empathy works.

Naruto is a hilarious counterpoint to Aang. Naruto is a character who was rejected by his society not for who he was, but for what he carried inside him. He was written off as dangerous, neglected by the village, and he knew they hated him even if he didn’t know why (because everyone was forbidden to tell him.) He grew up alone, and lonely. His vandalism, class clowning, destructive acting out is brought up by the Third Hokage in the first episode as coming from his desire to have his existence acknowledged by someone… by anyone. Even if the attention is negative, it’s positive for him. Something is better than nothing. Naruto’s dream, which everyone derides, is to become Hokage himself so the whole village will have to acknowledge him. This is standard behavior for neglected children, including smiling to pretend you don’t care, things don’t hurt you, even when they do.

What makes Naruto different from so many other characters like him is that his ability to connect with others and change them with the power of friendship is rooted in his own suffering, his experience of being rejected by those around him. His sympathy and empathy for those who share his plight, his attempt to communicate his feelings to them even in battle, all tie in with his growing understanding of the Hokage’s responsibilities. He doesn’t lose his optimism, doesn’t lose himself to hatred even though he’s hated. It would be easy for him to hate, but he chooses not to. He tries to understand his enemies instead, winning them over with genuine kindness, how hard he tries, and how he tells them not to give them up. “Look at what you still have,” Naruto says, “not at what you’ve lost.”

I’d rather have Naruto around than Aang, because Naruto is the obnoxious loudmouthed friend who headbutts you when you’re getting down on yourself. The one who sticks with you through thick and thin, and stays without judgement even when you’re the ugliest version of yourself. The one who hops down into the dark hole with you, the one who says, “I’ve been down here before. Come on, I’ll show you the way out.”

Aang is not this character, he tries to be but he’s too selfish and thin skinned. Aang is the character who gives you a sanctimonious speech after pretending to commiserate. He’s not willing to face the idea of being a bad person, or being perceived as a bad person. He’s hurt by rejection if the other person doesn’t immediately change after he tries. He’s not willing to empathize, even though he shares parts of Naruto’s backstory. He’s lost everything, but he wields his loss as an emotional crutch. We should feel bad for him, for the weight of his responsibilities, and how he doesn’t get to have what he wants. Aang is afraid of losing more, and that fear brings out the worst version of himself more often than not. He wouldn’t be the Avatar if someone wasn’t dragging him into being the Avatar. He ran away from being the Avatar, after all. He can’t reach people lost in their own darkness, and when he tries its usually because he has a genuine interest in them for a specific reason.

Avatar’s narrative says some people can be helped but they’re exceptions, some people can change but they’re exceptions and they would have anyway because they were actually good to begin with. Monsters, though, can’t be helped, can’t be reached, can’t change. Avatar’s narrative will tell you to abandon the people who bought into their society’s values, that they have to save themselves in isolation. Avatar will tell you there are good people and bad people, and bad people deserve what happens to them.

And… that’s not quite living up to the philosophy the narrative insists it espouses.

-Michi

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Q&A: Emotions Are Not A Weakness

Do good fighters have to become emotionally distant/stunted/withdrawn in order to be effective? Often strength is seen as the same as being unemotional (not just being able to hide them) and not being ‘soft’ at all. Empathy, kindness, patience, etc, are considered weaknesses. Avatar: the Last Airbender is one of the only mediums I have seen that places some value on these traits even when the characters fight. Is there room for these traits in real life martial arts, other combat, or militaries?

Put. The. CW. Down.

If Avatar: The Last Airbender is the only example which comes to mind you either need to broaden your horizons or reevaluate what you’ve been reading/watching. You don’t need to expand beyond the YA, where this attitude flourishes, but you may want to read some better material or chase Avatar’s actual genre. Avatar: The Last Airbender is part of the martial arts fantasy adventure genre, known as wuxia in China, and for that genre it actually lives in the shallow end of the pool for the material its discussing.

I challenge you to go watch Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Letters from Iwo Jima, Saving Private Ryan, M.A.S.H, Rurouni Kenshin, Naruto, Bleach, Yu Yu Hakusho, Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, Black Clover, Claymore, That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime, Full Metal Alchemist, read Protector of the Small, All Quiet on the Western Front, Journey to the West, or countless other novels, manga, and comics which delve into this topic at length, and tell me they promote the idea of the emotionless combatant. Oh My General is on Amazon Prime right now. You can watch Ice Fantasy, Eternal Love/Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms, A Korean Odyssey, Violet Evergarden, Mr. Sunshine, Train to Busan, and many others are available on Netflix. I mean, watch Captain Marvel and Captain America: The First Avenger. Neither of these two are emotionless drones. I mean, have you watched The Two Towers? Aragorn and Legolas were in the process of becoming unglued at Helms Deep, they started yelling at each other in Elvish so the Rohirrim wouldn’t know how scared they were in order to maintain moral.

I’m not sure where you’ve gotten this perspective from. Though, it is a common misread of combat discipline, compartmentalization, and that someone must not have emotions if they don’t outwardly show their emotions in performative way or let their emotions rule them. The emotionless drone plot is one that does occur in many East Asian narratives, but its not presented as a strength. The plot revolves around the individual running away from a traumatic experience and giving up their humanity as a result, this is treated as a display of weakness rather than strength. You need your emotions, we make some pretty shitty choices without compassion, kindness, and empathy. You need your emotions like anger to give you purpose and to drive you. You need your frustrations to dig deep, to find the strength to overcome. You just can’t allow them to control you.

At the beginning of your question you asked,

Do good fighters have to become emotionally distant/stunted/withdrawn in order to be effective?

These three words are not the same, they do not share the same meaning, and to combine them is to misunderstand the difference between being emotionally distant or withdrawn and being emotionally stunted. You then go on to combine being stunted, withdrawn, and distant with the idea of having no emotions at all.

Someone who is emotionally distant has emotions, but is choosing not to connect to other individuals in the moment. This is a choice.

Someone who is emotionally withdrawn has exited their emotions from the situation. They are unreachable, and are trying to protect themselves.

Someone who is emotionally stunted is someone who has not actually developed their emotions, and as a result experiences them in an often explosive and immature way. Emotionally, they are a child in the body of an adult dealing with adult emotions. They are more likely, rather than less, to be controlled by their emotions.

Someone who is unemotional, is someone who does not feel at all and that is different from all of the above.

None of these are a person who practices combat discipline because combat discipline is a necessary survival mechanism for keeping yourself and your friends alive. Combat discipline doesn’t negate your emotions, but uses them for motivation while keeping the mind clear. They are able to review the situation logically, and make rational decisions. Combat discipline doesn’t necessarily follow someone out of a combat scenario. They can and do emotionally engage with others outside of violence. (They can emotionally engage with someone during a combat scenario also, however their emotions are not the basis of their decision making.)

Your emotions are positive and negative, and both can be manipulated by your enemy. They can also manipulate you. You can use your emotions to justify narcissism, use your anger to justify harming others, and can make incredibly poor long term choices for the good of others based on short term gratification. The desire to feel like a good person can be destructive when that desire blinds you to the reality of the situation you’re inhabiting, when your life and the lives of others are riding on that decision. There’s a lot more to violence than technical aptitude. There are a lot of ways to kill someone, many which involve maneuvering someone into a position from which they can’t defend themselves. An easy way to do that is by manipulating your opponent’s emotions, their desires, their anger, their greed, their compassion, their kindness, and their empathy. If you approach a situation blindly, you can fall.

There’s a combat tactic called a honeypot, where you specifically wound an enemy soldier and leave him/her out in the open. When the other soldiers come to rescue them, you kill them.

This is a tactic which specifically preys on the human desire to help a comrade who is suffering. The trap relies on you to jump based on a knee jerk emotional response, to act without thinking.

This is where your emotions can get you into trouble and why combat discipline is a necessary skill to develop. If you don’t, then even a high school bully can bait you into acting against your own interest and maneuver you into a bad situation.

Read Sun Tzu’s Art of War and you’ll start to get an idea.

The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself. – Sun Tzu

You want to reduce the opportunities someone has to take advantage of you. Only by shoring up your mind and seeking clarity, can you defend yourself against an enemy’s mental attacks. We like to imagine that battle takes place only in the clashing of bodies, but strategies and tactics are provided by the mind. A clever enemy will strike at you in all the places you are weak, often in those you do not expect.

The mistake is assuming this means the character cannot have any emotional connections at all, that they must have no emotion and must be a drone to save themselves. Many writers have taken this direction on the assumption the emotionless approach is the best way to secure victory, even if it’s a self-sabotaging one which exists only in the fantastical.

The emotionless drone is also a misreading of Taoism/Daoism, Confucianism, Zen Buddhism, and other philosophies and religions; just as Avatar also misunderstands the philosophies of the material it draws from. The search for enlightenment and transcendence has nothing to do with giving up your emotions, giving up what matters, and going to live on a mountaintop away from anything which can threaten your inner peace. Aang cannot give up Katara because Katara is not an object Aang can control or possess. Giving up your desires is code for giving up your illusion of control, giving up your preconceived notions of who someone else is, and realize only when you have given up the illusions which blinded you can you see clearly. The distinction between Aang’s love for Katara and Aang’s love for his idea of Katara is important. While the Avatar narrative is steeped in these themes of enlightenment and transcendence, it never delves into them and, as a result, the martial arts component of the fantasy becomes a prop. Aang defeating the Firelord through violence at the end of Avatar: The Last Air Bender is actually a failure by the narrative to understand its own genre inherited themes.

It is important to remember when asking questions about the real world and real world martial arts, that the bending martial arts of Avatar are based on four distinct Chinese martial arts: Baguazhang (Air), Tajiquan (Water), Hung Guar Kuen (Earth), and Northern Shaolin (Fire). All these martial arts have a real history, with real philosophies, ones that are often contrary to their use in Avatar. Baguazhang and Tajiquan are what are commonly referred to as “soft” martial arts in the West, but better definition for them is “internal”. They are meditative, philosophical, and introspective martial arts with a focus on Daoist transcendence.

Part of Avatar’s problem is the idea that only specific people are born with the ability to bend, and therefore only specific people practice the martial arts rather than manipulating the elements being the result of interest, hard work, and training. This piece of worldbuilding is in defiance of all the martial arts and genre conventions it utilizes, such as Martial Arts Gives You Superpowers. Bending should be attainable to the average person even if they’re not born with natural talent, but isn’t. Transcendence through enlightenment, harmony, and understanding of the natural world is barred based on the luck someone has when they’re born. Avatar has the same problem as Star Wars after the introduction of midichlorians.

Compare to Naruto, which as a shounen manga/anime has a far better grasp of chi/qi/ki baked into its world building, where the distinction for the average person becoming a ninja is access, and where the discussion about the place of emotion in warfare is contrasted with individual loss and suffering and the prejudice which results from it. There’s also a lot of ugly crying in that first episode. Never let it be said real men don’t cry.

Most of war, shounen, and other martial arts fantasy narratives discuss the importance of relationships, of the bonds created between people which give them motivation to survive through horrific circumstances, through trauma and loss. How those bonds cause pain which can destroy you, and how they can save you in the hard times, how we can mistake one emotion for another, how feelings are an important component of what it is to be human.

The idea of characters being emotionless is mostly just a cheap out to avoid needing to write the characters as having difficult emotions which can be hard to express, are frightening, make us ugly or unlikeable, self-obsessed, or, in romantic stories, letting in that one special person who awakens their long buried feelings. In poor writing, kindness, compassion, patience, empathy are the province of certain characters rather than regular human traits because possessing empathy makes those characters look better.

So, no, being emotionless doesn’t make someone a better warrior. Giving up your emotions is the coward’s way out, it’s a means of escaping difficult feelings and pain, and repressing so you don’t have to deal with them. Facing your feelings takes real courage.

The truth is someone can go to war and return fine without any trauma, not be damaged, still be a loving parent, sibling, child, husband/wife, even after they’ve ended the lives of others. This can be difficult for some people to wrap their heads around. Likewise, compartmentalization can be hard to understand. They don’t have to find the act of killing hard, usually they take more exception to losing those they care about.

-Michi

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Q&A: The Quarterstaff

Exactly how effective is a Quarterstaff as a weapon? How much body strength would a young adult female require to wield one? And, if it isn’t that effective, do you know of any similar weapons?

rebelqueenoftheliberator

Let’s just say there’s a reason the Little John of Robin Hood legend carries a quarterstaff.

The quarterstaff is a godly weapon that is the gateway for an entire family of weapons (in some Chinese schools, all weapons), and your female protagonist is going to need endurance far more than strength to wield it for prolonged periods. The basic strike patterns of the staff can be translated into… almost all weapons. This includes: all polearms, the sword, chain weapons like the whip chain/meteor hammer, the great axe/great sword, techniques like half-handing with swords, the list goes on.

The quarterstaff is: Welcome to Weapons, Beginner’s 101. How to use a weapon with a weapon that will not whip around and kill you.

This isn’t to say the quarterstaff isn’t dangerous compared to the others. It is very dangerous, especially in the right hands. However, it’s also the “safest” weapon to learn on which makes it the weapon you get to fuck up on and make mistakes with while you learn about how much contact vibration sucks. This is the weapon were the difference is bruised and broken fingers versus no fingers. Make no mistake, your fingers are target number one for even the most well-meaning training partner. You will hurt your fingers in staff training. It will be your fault because you failed to hold the staff at the right angle, and your opponent’s staff slid right down and… smack.

This is a necessary lesson, without it you’ll never realize how easy it would be for someone to cut your goddamn hand off. Or, how your own failure in technique helped them do it.

You don’t need to be strong to wield a staff, you need to physically be able to hold onto it for prolonged periods. When you strike something, whether this is your opponent’s body or their staff, the weapon will vibrate. Those shock waves will go through your hands, up your arms, and into your body. The harder you strike, the stronger the rebound. You get this with hand to hand too, but the effect is weaker. You can gain greater momentum with the staff, the weapon moves fast, and hits hard on impact. It’s like hitting a steel bell, over and over and over again. You are taking the force of your own strikes into your body, in addition to your opponent’s, when the two collide. You don’t need physical strength, you need endurance. You need to learn how to drive past resistance, how to keep going when your arms want to fall off, and how to mitigate that force through your technique.

There is no better weapon to learn this on than the staff. The weapon you don’t have to worry about keeping sharp, and which will teach you about how someone can deliver the full force of god into you even when you’ve successfully blocked their technique. Best of all? It’s cheap and easy to replace when you break it.

The concept of body-building levels of physical upper body strength being necessary for martial combat is a misconception pushed by video games, pencil & paper RPGs like DnD, and misunderstanding the incredibly heavy parade swords/display weapons versus the weapons used in combat. You’re going to get exhausted enough in prolonged melee without trying to swing around a weapon that weighs thirty to forty pounds. Power from a staff comes from momentum, generated by leverage, and the fact a combat staff is a very sturdy/solid piece of wood.

So, the short answer is: children can wield staves.

Your character’s staff is going to weigh a couple pounds at most. She’s going to need to worry more about having the space to wield her staff depending on location versus being able to pick it up. The skills learned hold up both for using other polearms like the spear, and can be passed on to other weapons like the sword and chain weapons depending on style. The quarterstaff has an advantage over swords in terms of reach (it’s longer), and the staff is one of the best weapons for fighting off multiple opponents. This is due both to the staff’s length and the fact you can transition between wielding from the front to the back and from the middle. It can be upgraded into a spear, which is the king of anti-cavalry weapons, and warfare in general. Also, the staff is an excellent weapon for self-defense. Did I mention you can kill people with it? You can. You can kill your enemies without putting a metal spike on the end, the metal spike just makes it even easier; with more penetration against armored opponents. The techniques flow from one right into the next, the building blocks in your ascension to a whole new world.

You may be wondering about what I mean when I say blocking hard hits is technique. Any idiot can swing a staff, but a trained warrior strikes well and with no wasted motion. That technical aptitude is the difference between high school bully hard and killing blow hard. This is the difference between a several minute long fight, a twenty-five second fight, one that lasts seven seconds, and a half second. This is the same truth for defense. Just like with a strong attack, a strong defense begins with the position of the feet. People like to think fighting is all about the upper body because the upper body is easy to understand, but you don’t want to be the person who skips leg day. Martial combat is about balance, it’s about using force to destabilize your opponent and creating the necessary openings for attack. Poor defense begins in footwork, with bad stances, and a weak base.

If your stances are bad, you halve your delivered force. If your stances are bad, a mediocre blow will break your defense. You can’t spread the incoming force or keep your balance when you’re hit. You’ll take the whole blow in your arms, rather than supporting your arms with your legs, your chest, and your core. When your defense breaks, the follow-up blow is what gets you. People who stumble after one hit? Bad stance. Too shallow, too deep, feet too close together, feet too far apart. The really skilled martial artists start manipulating the triangle, moving your feet to destabilize your opponent on the strike translates into foundational strategy. When this happens, you can’t transition that force into the earth where it belongs and take the brunt of it instead. Whether you can take the blow is dependent on where your feet are, not on the upper body strength of your opponent.

We’re talking about the importance of legs because, when it comes to weapons, writers often get confused and think the importance lies in the weapon itself rather than the person who wields it. After all, 90% of arm wrestling is getting your opponent’s arm on a vector where they can no longer resist. You think it’s about physical strength, but its really all properly applied pressure and angles. Physics, geometry, the “talent” which gets boosted to mystic levels is usually a person who has a phenomenally good grasp of their own body and being able to quickly apply what they see.

We mystify what we don’t understand. You can one hand a staff, from the back end, which is really how you thrust with it. Your other hand is just for guidance. You can spin a wushu staff around your neck, honestly. (I know someone’s going, “I don’t get how that works.” Don’t worry, that’s not a combat move. The neck spin is just a trick move that comes from playing around with speed, spins, and the weapon’s balance point.) The staff is a weapon that can be devastatingly quick in the right hands. It has incredible mobility, switching from high/low to low/high in a few simple motions. When it really gets going, you can hear it whizzing in the air.

If you want to write good fights with staves, you actually need to study staff work. You need an idea of how they move, and how people use/used them. Medieval staff work is going to be more useful to you if you want the quarterstaff. I recommend starting with someone like Lindybeige and moving on to how to videos on YouTube like Hroarr‘s quarterstaff series (keep in mind this is one school of Renaissance quarterstaff), before jumping straight to Sze-Man Tsang in The Iron Monkey. However, if you need confirmation that a 13 year old girl can wield a weapon much larger than themselves then, yes, watch this clip where she plays Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung. Also, if you’ve never seen the upper echelon of child performance martial artists in action… watch. This girl starred opposite Donnie Yen. She is a wushu champion who grew up to become a police officer. Unfortunately, you’re not going to get a lot of choreographed fight scenes outside of Wuxia, East Asian cinema, martial arts communities, and HEMA aficionados.

The Protector of the Small series by Tamora Pierce has a lot of focus on staves and staff work, with the glaive being the protagonist’s preferred weapon. However, keep in mind that Pierce draws heavily from Japanese staff forms and the naginata for her scenes rather than western weaponswork. You’re going to want to do your own HEMA research if the European quarterstaff is what you want versus the many other styles worldwide.

There’s a lot of variance with the staff, and a lot more information readily available for research than there was ten to twenty years ago. One of the things you’re going to want to make sure you do is steer away from the idea of one weapon fits all. Weapons are designed for specific uses and situations. Your character is always going to want to carry a backup sidearm, be it a sword or a dagger or something for the times when their staff is not going to help them or their enemy breaks past it. A true warrior is the master of many weapons because they know they must fight under many different circumstances.

If you haven’t had any exposure to staff combat before, you might be be surprised by it. The staff is a weapon that’s all about momentum and leverage, your favorite word from physics. It hits hard, it’s very quick in the right hands, and changes positions faster than you probably imagined. If you crafted an image in your head of a big, hefty, slow weapon then the quarterstaff is not for you. This is an underrated weapon, but still a gold standard for breaking bones, skulls, and, well, everything else.

Your teenager will find this weapon to be the perfect jumping off point not just for her travels, but also for training in other weapons. All weapon combat is about leverage. If you pay attention to the quarterstaff training videos you’ll find the echoes the techniques in longsword combat. Basically, it’s a great choice.

Check out this video from The Modern Rogue, and remember the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.”

-Michi

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Q&A: Description is Context

tinker-tanner said to howtofightwrite:

Do you have any advice on how to write description? Whenever I think of something to write it’s purely dialogue, not even minimal stage directions like a Shakespeare play. Just voices in a white void.

Then, that’s what you start with.

Write the scene purely as dialogue so you get it out of your head. If you can tell who is talking, you’re golden. So, it will look something like this:

“How’s it going?” Jayse asked.

“Seeing the other Blooded’s problem,” Chastity said.

“Time dilation?”

“Yeah,” Chastity said.

“Whiz shit.”

“What’s happening?”

“He’s getting on the 914,” Isolde said.

“The what?”

“The bus, Jayse!” Isolde hissed. “He’s getting on the goddamn bus!”

“You would know all local bus routes, Chaz,” Jayse said.

Think about description as context, filling in the blanks and that white noise. Once you’ve got the dialogue out on the page, you have the luxury of asking yourself what the hell is happening in this scene. Your best friends are: What? Where? Why? When? How?

Once you’ve got your dialogue out, ask yourself some questions:

What are the characters doing?

In this case, they’re hunting some sort of monster and we know from “time dilation” it (probably) has supernatural powers.

Where are they?

Well, they’re clearly somewhere modern because they’re referencing the bus routes.

What is the monster doing? Why are they trying to catch it?

This we don’t know, because we have no description. It can look like anything. So try and figure out what you want it to look like, think about it.

Okay, so think about that. Let it take shape in your mind, imagine how the world sounds, tastes, feels. What do your characters hear? What are they looking for? What do they want? How do they plan to get it? What do they think inside their heads that they wouldn’t say out loud?

Got it? Let’s try again.

Chastity Dumont lunged across the open space between buildings. Foot slamming down on the ground and thrusting her body back up in a great leap, she flew over the busy street below. Her mind barely had time to register the cars whizzing past as she tucked, landed on her shoulder, rolled to her feet and raced after her prey.

He wasn’t too far ahead of her, long arms flailing as he tried to run. A short creature with a bulbous head and slick gray skin in a violently bright orange Texas Longhorns jersey. Thick webbed feet slapped the concrete roof. His pace a leisurely jog level rather than someone running for their lives.

He is running, she thought. He just doesn’t think I can catch him. Time wrapped around him, sped him up. In his wake, she slowed immeasurably.

“How’s it going?” crackled a voice in her ear, snapping electricity down her jaw.

Chastity slid over an air conditioner unit. “Seeing the other Blooded’s problem.”

“Time dilation?”

“Yeah.”

Okay, we have the first half of the dialogue. Now we can see how Chastity came to her conclusion of time dilation while hunting her prey. This means that this is a problem she can deal with, unlike the other Blooded she referenced. We know what the monster looks like, we know we’re in a city, and we’ve got some action going on.

Pay special attention when you’re reading over the dialogue you’ve written for breaks that feel unnatural, where it feels like something else should be there. The comment, “Whiz shit” is an unnatural jump.

Ahead of her, the bulbous head alien dropped off the roof edge and disappeared into the darkness between brightly colored apartment buildings.

Chastity came to a stop, watching fluorescent orange and gleaming white bounce between steel fire escapes down into a thin alley. As he hit the ground, his form shifted, lengthened, and grew more human. She suspected he’d put on pants and maybe shoes too, just to fill out the shit sundae. Her head tilted backwards, filled with the familiar whine of a large, heavy vehicle sliding to a stop. She inhaled deeply, air full of greasy ass diesel. “Whiz shit.”

“What’s happening?”

“He’s getting on the 914.”

“The what?”

“The bus, Jayse!” she hissed. “He’s getting on the goddamn bus!”

That got a laugh. “You would know all local bus routes, Chaz.”

Figuring out your own creative process can be difficult, so if you don’t have the right images or words don’t be afraid to turn to outside sources. Google Image Search is your friend. That can help you get the necessary context to filling out your narrative if the images don’t come on their own.

Think about the dialogue you write, and how your characters might react to the comments. How do they feel? Do they scrunch up their eyebrows or nose, curl their lips, sneer or smile? Do they laugh? What do they look like when they’re talking? Are they animated, sedate, or somewhere in between? What does they look like, just in general?

The alien stepped forward, purple-blue light shimmered between two round paws. Same color as the crystal burning beneath the jersey, rays spilling out through the holes. Illuminating the bus’ roof in a dazzling array of tiny pentagons, shifting, shimmering, and spinning round across the cracked white surface like a 70s disco ball.

I suppose this would be the wrong time to joke about stayin’ alive, Chastity thought. Jumbled bits of numbers, words, lines of code flashed around his fingertips. Rattling off a few thousand sigils in rapid succession. Spell type. Detonation rank. Expected area of damage. Electromagnetic region detonation. Grade B spell. Class Type D. In an attempt to stop her, he’d vaporize half the city block and everyone in the radius. Well, everyone except his intended target. Her hands clenched around the rebars. Metal spur piercing out of her heel, slicing through cotton, leather, and rubber of her boot to grip the metal. She jerked upright as her wings thrust her to her feet.

The alien blinked.

Throwing herself forward, Chastity drove the rebar in her left hand through the glowing purple ball. Sudden impact of iron disrupted the electricity, sending arcs across the bus widows and splashing out over the asphalt. As his eyes widened, she drove the right rebar into his stomach. She felt the first blow crush sensitive internal organs, burst the stomach sack, and sent him flying.

It’s seems silly to ask, but what are they wearing? Really, what are they wearing? Are their bangs short or long? Do they tug at their hair when they’re nervous? Does their hair fall across their eyes when they tilt their head?

Getting what you already have in your head out on the page means you don’t have to worry about losing what you’ve come up with and can focus on the parts of your story which are eluding you. The more practice you get, the better you get. Again, don’t be afraid to turn to art, photographs, and other images if they help you. Pulling up some images of a lake at sunset when you want to write about your characters confessing their love by the lake at sunset, can really help with the visualization for the scenery. Is the grass short or tall? How large are the strands? How big is the lake? Do people commonly visit this lake or is it out in the middle of nowhere? Are there ducks, geese, swans, other birds that make noise? How does the light reflect off the water? Is the sun low enough for a true red or are we fading into purple twilight?

Your style is going to determine the amount of description you need, and how much is too much. You want to experiment and practice. Writers can be successful with incredibly sparse and prose so flowery it turns purple, all that really matters is whether or not the reader is given the context they need to understand the character’s behavior, reactions, and surroundings.

The more you add in, the more questions you can ask and continue refining down your image. Sometimes, you have to start out general to end up specific. This can be simple as “What does Character B look like?”

Your answers might start out general like: female, medium height, blonde, blue eyes, nose, mouth, long fingers, etc.

Take the vague image you have, and sharpen up the detail.

Then, Chastity turned her head. The gold-yellow irises surrounded by a black cornea turned a warm crystal blue, the rest of the eye fading into the usual human color. The silver and ruby wings retracted, slipping back through the ripped gaps in her leather jacket and white cotton shirt. Silver gashes in her skin cutting out of her jaw disappeared and smoothed back to the usual soft pink. Clawed gauntlets slipped back beneath the human skin coating finely boned, delicate hands.

One could easily see a slightly battered seventeen year old in a grungy shirt, torn apart jacket, and ripped jeans, but Jayse knew better than anyone — Chastity Dumont had never been a human girl.

Remember, practice makes perfect. The best way to learn how to do something is to just do it. Start with what your brain has already given you and start filling in the blanks. Probing questions are important. Use your What, Where, When, Why, How. Think about your five senses. Get curious about your dialogue. If your story excites you, you should want to know more. Why did your character say what they did? What was their motivation? What did they look like when they said it? How do they feel?

If you get: anger, ask yourself what anger looks like. What is the bodily response? How do they deal with confrontation? Do they stare the other person down, lock gazes, drop their eyes, look up, look away, or physically turn away?

Ahead of Chastity, the alien had fallen in another attempt to crawl away and trapped himself between the cars. His frantic head turned back in her direction, massive eyes blinking. Sparks crackled across his hands, the remnants of his disrupted spell. Small body slumped, squirmed, wriggling as he inched his way down the road.

Coming to a stop over him, Chastity lifted the last rebar. Her wings flared wide, casting long shadows across the road, blacking out the twilight sky.

Someone in the crowd screamed.

The alien rolled, weakly lifting his hands.

Chastity rammed the rebar down, through the lower torso, and into the asphalt.

Gray-green blood splattered a black surface.

This time, the alien shrieked.

“Turnabout,” Chastity said.

Her Comm implant snapped her jaw, flickers of electricity singing up her ear. Jayse’s voice came in loud. “Got him?”

One hand dropped to her jeans pocket, and Chastity fished out a small silver coin. Held it up between her thumb and forefinger. Gave it a squeeze. She tossed the coin onto the alien’s torso. Eight silver spider legs extended off the disc, latching into his chest. A tiny blue light beeped. She brushed her jaw with a finger. “Beam us up, Scotty.”

Jayse groaned.

Chastity grinned as she and the alien disappeared in a brilliant flash of bright white-blue light.

-Michi

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Q&A: Welcome to Writing

my imagination (when it works) tends to conjure up scenes fully formed and devoid of context, and trying to put them to words – let alone make a story out of them – is really tough. it’s like i’m trying to write a movie that’s already been filmed and i’ve only seen bits and pieces of it.               

Welcome to writing.

I’m not going to say this is what writing is like for everyone, but it is for most people. At the very least, your experience is true for me. I see my stories in scenes filmed in my head and patchwork them together into a narrative after lengthy consideration. Plots come together in fits and starts, and often change. What I envision in my head rarely ends up on the page, often I get something different than what I intended. Learning not to be disappointed by that was a process, and something I still struggle with. Learning how to bring what I imagined to life for others to enjoy was also a process, one I’ve worked at for a very long time.

What most people won’t tell you about writing is that it’s a skill. Anyone can write, anyone can learn how to write, but the good storytellers are those who’ve worked very hard. Developing any skill takes time, it takes practice. You’ll fall down a lot. You’ll face disappointment. You’ll fail. This is true of every novelist and every book you pick up. They’ve all failed at certain points in their lives. They all felt they were terrible. They all wanted to tear their hair out over their characters, their plots, their descriptions, their backstory, their setting not working quite the way it was supposed to. The only difference between a success and a failure is the willingness to pick yourself up and try again.

There’s a great quote from the manga Black Clover, which is a sentiment that’s been paraphrased many different ways but one I think is important to remember when you’re getting down on yourself.

“Being weak is nothing to be ashamed of. Staying weak is,” Fuegoleon Vermillion tells Noelle.

What Fuegoleon means is choosing self-pity over self-improvement is weakness, but there is nothing weak about a person who is trying to improve. They may be struggling, they may not be where they want to be yet, the skills they want to acquire may not come easily, but they aren’t weak.

You may have difficulty crafting characters, context, and plot for the sequences you imagine right now but it’ll get easier and easier if you keep working at it. The only way to improve is through practice. Devote yourself to writing for a certain period every day, or every few days. I personally really like Terry Pratchett’s 400 words a day rule. (You can set any metric you like.) The 400 is the right amount for me that is easy to reach, and if I surpass it? Great. If I don’t, well? I got some writing done. Sometimes, I have to take breaks to work on other projects when I’ve exhausted myself but, in between the point I stop working on one book and start on another, I’m still writing. I’m keeping my skills sharp, and through working with a different narrative may come around the piece I need to move forward with the other one. Following this rule, I’ve written over 60,000 words so far this year. I wrote over 200,000 last year in for various fictional projects, not counting the work I did for this blog. I write a lot, and I follow the basic tenants set down by Ernie Reyes’ Black Belt Code. The Code felt silly when I recited it at thirteen, but means a lot now as a reference point. There are ten steps, but the first five are the only ones I remember.

  1. Set a goal.
  2. Take action.
  3. Pay attention to detail.
  4. Practice, Practice, Practice.
  5. Change if it’s not working.

Rinse, lather, repeat. These steps will eventually lead to mastery.

There are going to be plenty of times where the idea you have isn’t going to work or will require change. You’ll go back to the drawing board multiple times. You’ll realize you don’t have the skills needed either in description, or dialogue, or character building to craft what you want; which means you need to go out and acquire those skills. Then, come back and try again.

Identify your weaknesses. Study works by those whose writing is strong where yours is weak, figure out the techniques they used and try applying them to your own work. You can turn anywhere for this, so don’t let people fool you into thinking it can only be fictional novels. You can learn a lot about world building from strategy games, from pencil and paper RPGs, from video games, history, sociology, political science, and plenty other sources. You can study television and film for to learn about different sorts of dialogue beats, episodic structure, learning how to describe human interaction and facial expressions. You can people watch, then experiment with conversations you heard later. In order to improve my skills writing dialogue, I used to listen to video game dialogue snippets on YouTube over and over and over. I could’ve read a transcript of the dialogue, but I wanted to familiarize myself with the tone, cadence, and vocal patterns of the actors in order to translate that into my writing. So the character sounded like the character, even when their dialogue was read. I do this even now where I’ll pick a film or television show with a character I like to put on as background noise so I can get into the right frame of mind for what I’m writing. There are plenty of writers who do this with music, I have whole libraries and playlists for different characters.

If you don’t know how to do something then work on learning. A large part of writing is taking what you see and what you know and applying it into a specific format. Nothing is off limits, everything is a reference for you. You want to work on character development? You can read lots of books with characters you like, paying attention to how they changed. You can also then go read breakdowns and character analyses to see what others took from the same material. There’s so much information freely available today, many barriers to what was once secret knowledge have been removed. You just have to start taking advantage of your local library and your internet connection.

To be a writer is to be a lifelong student, a jack of all trades, knowledgeable about many things but a master of none. If you want to write myths, epics, and mythic characters then you should be reading myths but I also recommend reading Joseph Campbell. I don’t just mean A Hero With A Thousand Faces and patterning your narrative on “The Hero’s Journey”, but understanding how myths worked, what they meant to the cultures of the people who created them, and the resonant narrative themes which are found in many cultures worldwide.

There’s copying and there’s understanding, copying can bridge into understanding but only if you take the time to really evaluate why a specific narrative technique works the way it does. Learning how something works gives you the freedom to apply it how you want to your own narrative instead of trying to force fit someone else’s vision into your own. This is how you can build your work, your own vision while looking to others for guidance and advice.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Give yourself permission to suck.

Remember, everything you read is the work of months, often years. You don’t see all the author’s failures, their previous bad writing, when they sucked, their points of depression, and (in some cases) their drug fueled benders. You don’t see the endless edits, the previous drafts, the subplots begun and abandoned. You don’t see where the characters began in the finished product, just where they ended up. You don’t see their previous attempts. You might be reading their latest work written in their late fifties rather than the one they wrote in their mid-twenties, early thirties. You’re probably not reading the works they produced at ten years old.

Sometimes, you’ve just got to write and write and write until you start writing well. Physical exercise is like that too. You keep at it until something clicks, you get over the hump, you adjust and it gets easier. Do the best you can right now. Work on surpassing those limits. Once you get over the hump, once it gets easier and you’ve gotten comfortable, set your next goal and work passing those limits. It may feel impossible at times, the mountain insurmountable. When you’re getting down on yourself, you can always go back and read what you wrote in the past. You’ll see where you improved, and realize you weren’t nearly as terrible as you thought.

As Fuegoleon Vermillion said, “Being weak is nothing to be ashamed of. Staying weak is.”

Overcoming adversity is about building character and, when it comes to life getting you down, not taking “no” for an answer. It takes courage to face yourself, and acknowledge you’ve got flaws. Review your failure. Acknowledge your strengths, identify your weaknesses, and work on turning those weaknesses into your strength. The non-dominant hand/side is the most technically proficient in martial arts because you struggle when learning to control it. While the power hand, the dominant hand, is important, the non-dominant hand does the technical things.

You haven’t failed until you’ve truly given up. There’s no better time than now to start building your foundation.

-Michi

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Q&A: Writing that Intimidating Darth Vader Character

How do you illustrate someone that’s absolutely terrifying in a fight? I’ve got this plate-wearing, greatsword-wielding character designed in the style of Darth Vader or the Terminator, but I haven’t found a way to ‘show’ that she’s this terrifying, freakishly strong juggernaut without being sloppy or a blatant power trip, or turning other characters into ‘oh she’s so scary’ plot devices.

The answer is pretty simple, but also difficult in practice because the answer to writing intimidating characters is a concept called “presence”. In film, this is usually referred to as screen presence but in fiction (and in life) we’ll refer to this as body language.

There’s a mistaken assumption that you need to be large to be imposing, but what makes Vader and the Terminator so imposing is actually their body language and the way they’re framed. In their case most of this is visual, in the color palate, in the costume, but it’s also there in the body language. If you want to riff these characters in fiction, then you need to focus on how they behave and how the people around them react to their presence.

Why are they intimidating?

Why do they scare people?

You need to delve into the nitty gritty to translate what you’re feeling and seeing onto the page. You’re making a mistake in assuming that the character’s tools, the armor, the great sword, will do the work for them; but that’s not what makes someone intimidating in written fiction. You have to show what that armor and weapon mean.

The easy version of intimidation is total domination, total mastery, and total control. See below:

Lifting her eyes, Kadi took in her mother’s lazy stance, her blade in an almost ready position. She snapped forward, silver and green flashing in the mid-afternoon light. Re-appeared just behind her on the windowsill, ready to thrust.

Her mother’s blade caught her in the gut.

Kadi struck with her blade, blood spilling past her lips.

“Good,” her mother said, knocking the strike away. She caught Kadi by the collar before she fell, yanked back into the room, and flung her across it.

Kadi struck the wall, tumbled to the floor. Twisting, she landed on her feet. The blade spun in her hand. She rushed forward.

Her mother’s eyes gleamed yellow. “Your form and shape are tools.”

Their blades met in a clash of sparks.

“Control the flow of blood, and your body will not die until you wish it.”

She brought her blade up as her mother pressed inward, twisting sideways. Dodging her mother’s punch, she struck toward the inside of the thigh.

Her mother slipped away. “Never yield. Continue after the last enemy is dead.”

Their blades met again, and slid along the sharpened edges. Gritting her teeth, Kadi ignored the pounding in her ears. Her blood slipping down her stomach. She flicked the blade up, and drove the tip toward her mother’s neck.

Her mother’s foot caught Kadi’s gut wound, kicking her into the opposing wall.

Kadi landed hard.

“Get up.”

“Wake the Dead” by C.E. Schmitt

Keep in mind with this training sequence, the characters in this passage aren’t remotely human. So, you don’t have to worry about the long term ramifications of damage to a physical body. The purpose of the sequence is to teach both Kadi and the character about a body’s disposable nature. Kadi is learning how to fight through extreme injury, and even death.

You’ll notice Kadi’s mother doesn’t move from her position at all throughout the scene. Kadi attacks her, trying to break her defenses. We see her give Kadi a gut wound, save Kadi from falling out the window, and see her attack the gut wound. We see Kadi focusing while her mother instructs, multiple attempts by Kadi to attack her mother none of which are successful.

You don’t need to ask the question: who has the power in this scenario? It’s clear Mom does.

If you want your character to be intimidating in the classic villain sense then, not only do they have to win, they need to win without breaking a sweat. They should exude a sense of confidence whenever or wherever they go, regardless of what room they walk into. Other characters in setting get a chill just hearing their name. Knowing they’re nearby makes even seasoned established badasses freakout and suggest heading for the hills.

You have to let them do their thing, let them win, and let them keep winning until the time comes for them to lose.

Characters like Darth Vader and the Terminator put incredible pressure on the heroes until the end of the film, they evoke feelings of fear and desperation because they are so unfazed by the best warriors and conventional tactics. They represent overwhelming power, they are so unconcerned with ensuring their impending victory that they walk rather than run. By their own design, they’re better off used sparingly than spending the novel front and center or acting as the protagonist rather than the antagonist. These two aren’t just villains, they’re supporting characters. This is the Terminator, even in films like Terminator II where he’s a re-programmed good guy rather than a bad guy. He’s a bodyguard. There to kick ass, take names, and bond with John Connor. After all, Sarah Conner is the hero of both Terminator films. (OG Sarah Conner in Terminator II is not a bad character to look at for this kind of stone cold badass.) Due to their designed role as supports, you have to do a lot of work to remake them into protagonists.

As you’ve discovered, writing a character who is convincingly scary and intimidating is more difficult than it sounds. You have to walk your talk, and walk your walk. If you oversell and can’t make good, the character falls flat. If you tell without showing, then the tell has nothing to back itself up. You can’t tell me the character is a dangerous, unstoppable juggernaut and have the heroes defeat them two pages later. You oversell the character, and eliminate reader trust. They might not believe the next villain you trot out is a legitimate threat, which undercuts your narrative tension.

They need to live up to their reputation.

They need to inspire fear in others.

We need to see why people fear them and their skills.

Attitude – “I don’t have time for you.” These characters tend to be gruff, but they’re mostly condescending. They tend to be reserved even when they take up space. They’re in the rare situation where both their rudeness and confidence are justified by their ability to back it up. (You have to justify it, you can’t expect them to do it on their own.) You have to really stack up the odds for them to start getting ruffled. Therefore, it’s up to you as the author to figure out the narrative limits within your own setting. This way, you can keep your story consistent from scene to scene. One thing is common with all these characters is they take up space, they’re unapologetic about it, and when they walk into a room everyone notices. Also, get off my lawn.

One versus Many is an old hat narrative trick to establish a bad ass via fight scene. You need to be careful overusing this one, and then there’s the question of whether or not you as the writer can write a 1vX scenario. Juggling multiple enemies looks easy on screen, but isn’t when it’s just you trying to figure out how you write that.

The 1vX ups the ante when the seasoned antagonist takes on other top tier members of their group/established narrative badasses solo and handily wins. Well, you know they’re strong.

Deeds – What have they done to be worthy of their reputation? A warrior who slaughters farmers at the request of their overlord comes off as a bully. A warrior who slaughters the king’s best soldiers and then slaughters farmers afterward without mercy is goddamn terrifying.

The Power Stance – This is where the character stands forward facing, shoulders squared and chest lifted. Head up. The juggernaut fighting style involves not moving much unless you have to. They don’t draw their weapon unless they need it. You should probably view the weapon draw as the character signaling she’s getting serious, rather than her first go to. She’s not going to be serious in a bar fight because this is a character for whom the normal rules of safety don’t apply. (Also, the armor significantly limits all threats.)

Everyone Wants to Be the Best – The climb to the top is long, hard bitten, and fraught with danger. If you have a character who is the best at what they do like Darth Vader, you should respect the time and effort they put in to get themselves there. These characters often have very specific and job oriented personalities often to the point of obsession. For someone to be so on top as to have the reputation they do, they must have killed a lot of people. They’re the ones with a target on their back, the one everyone’s gunning for, who everyone wants to kill, and that doesn’t bother them at all.

Establish the Bottom – If you want to establish how much better a character is than everyone else, then you need to figure out and establish both the low bar and the average bar before jumping at the high bar. If the high bar is all people get, then they’ll think that’s where normal is. You need to establish why the power and skill gap between this character and others is so immense right from the get go, from our first interaction with the character. They should be pulling things off other characters can only imagine. For this reason, they usually don’t work well as POV characters.

Walkin’ Into Danger Like It’s Tuesday – Yeah, you know the famous line from Bison, “The day I graced your village was the single most important day of your life but, for me, it was Tuesday.”

The horrors they inflict are foundational for other people but, for them, what they do is normal. They’re the chaotic tornado upsetting other people’s lives, memorable to other people, but other people aren’t usually memorable to them. After all, they’ve done this for so long the faces begin to blur together.

Again, See Below:

The hellbeasts stalked into a semicircle, their long jaws slavering as they grinned to display razor sharp teeth.

“Get behind me, Emma,” Chastity said, drawing her blade. She stepped forward. “It’s going to be all right.”

Beside her, Jayse pulled his pistol. He didn’t question Chastity, they didn’t need Emma freaking out. Still, with the five hellbeasts in front of them, more on the rooftops, neither of them could make any promises about keeping an untrained neophyte safe. Chastity lacked the skills to deal with this many wargs on her own, and she was low in the rankings. He’d have to dip into his own powers to even the scale, even then he couldn’t make any guarantees.

The hellbeasts lunged.

Emma screamed.

The world exploded in a flash of hot white light.

Sharon Kelso stood where the hellbeasts had been, watching dust particles left behind by atomized bodies drift through the air. Her right hand stuck in her jean’s pocket. Her eyes glowed bright white. A small, winged imp-like creature squatted on one shoulder. Casually, she broke off the end of a candy bar and handed it to shriveled green thing.

The little imp snatched the bar, stuffed it into its mouth.

Kelso tilted her head, surveying each surprised face in the circle. “Go home.”

“Yeah, yeah!” the little imp yelled. “If ya don’t, we eats ya!”

“Eats! Fucker wants eats!” cried a second, tucked behind her leg. It titled its head, mimicking its mistress. “Wait. Can we eats them, Boss?”

Keso smiled faintly. “Not yet.”

“We can’t eats ya yet!” the first imp yelled.

The second shook its fist. “Stay for dinner, and we will!”

Kelso looked away, her expression dispassionate. “Go.” Her blazing white eyes scanned the nearby alleys, studying the shadows. “I don’t babysit.”

Jayse got to his feet, brushing off his arms. He tried to catch Kelso’s eye. Failing, he sighed and slipped his dagger back up his sleeve. She was definitely in one of her moods. They’d have to talk about her people skills, or lack thereof later. He resisted the urge to shove his hands in his pants, that’d just confirm he was still the disgruntled teenager Stewart believed he’d let himself become. “We should do what she says.”

“S-s-she just disintegrated them,” Emma whispered.

“She does that,” Chastity sighed.

Emma blinked. “Just like that?”

“Yeah,” Chastity said.

Jayse pushed back his hair, his eyes on Kelso. “There’s a breach in the sewers, third level. You shouldn’t go alone.”

She glanced at him, the light dying in her eyes. Brown irises flickered yellow in the street lights, and, for a moment, he saw confusion there. Then, her lips curled into one of her creepy, villainous smiles. The light flared back up inside her pupil as she rubbed her nose. “Amateurs.”

“Amateur! Amateur!” the little imp on her shoulder cried in a sing-song voice, and the second joined in to chorus, “amateur ashes all fall down!”

Jayse stiffened.

“She’s Number One for a reason, Jayse,” Chastity said. She reached out, and tugged at his sleeve. “We should let her do her thing.”

She’s Number One?” Emma squealed. “Wait. Number One? What does that even mean?”

Chastity smacked her forehead. “I knew we never should’ve let Emma out. There’s a dimensional breach. We got crossways of Kelso. Stewart’s gonna kill us.” She sighed heavily, biting her lower lip. “Our luck sucks.”

“You’ve no idea how right you are,” said another voice from behind them.

Kelso looked away, and the fiery light returned to her eyes. She walked down the alley, her shadow spread up one wall but not the other. As her shadow moved across concrete and brick, a pair of wings lifted off her back. Kelso finished off her candy bar, tossed the wrapper, and kicked off the manhole cover at the alley’s end.

“See you later, suckas!” the imp cried.

Kelso, imps on both shoulders, dropped into the sewers.

“Great,” Emma muttered. “She’s an asshole and she litters.”

“And she could stick all your internal organs on the outside of your body with a wink,” Chastity said.

When you encounter this character, they should feel like someone you really wouldn’t want to meet in a back alley.

– Michi

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Q&A: Reaction to Punching

I know this may sound stupid but, how do you write what happens after the punch hits to person? Like, when the punch hit “Their head flung/snapped sideways” Is there a word/words to describe that moment?

itshighnowon

This isn’t a stupid question. After all, if you’ve never punched anything before or spent a lot of time around martial artists or practiced martial arts then you’re not going to be familiar with the after effects.

You can use many different words to describe a punch hitting someone, so there aren’t specific words you need to use. Some descriptions are better than others. You generally want to follow the rules of physics and force projection. The head is a decent example for big motion, outside the rest of the body, because the only structural support is the neck. When struck with a single hand instead of in dual motion (like say boxing the ears), the head will generally move in the same direction the force was applied.

Forward = back

Struck from right = swings toward left side (follow the force)

Struck from left = swings toward right side (follow the force)

Behind = forward

Under = Up

If you hit them hard enough they might be knocked off their central axis, at which point they will step in the appropriate direction to counter the incoming force. If enough force is applied to knock them off balance, they may stumble. Keep in mind stumbling is unlikely on the punch, especially against someone who knows how to set their balance, because upper body strikes aren’t as powerful as they’re presented on television.

So, if you strike someone in the face with a jab then their head might “snap backwards” or be “knocked backwards” depending on how hard they’re hit. The question is the image you want to present, verb “snap” implies a quick jerk where the reader might assume “knocked” affected more than just the head and led to a step backwards to regain balance. So, you might apply “snap” to a quick strike off the leading hand and “knocked” to strikes off the secondary power hand. I won’t say “left” or “right” because the hand positioning relies on which side of the brain is dominant. If you’re right handed then the right is most likely your dominant hand and your power hand, while the left is the front/light/fast hand. Vice versa for the lefthanded side.

This is just the head. If you were to punch someone in the stomach, their whole body would curl inwards to protect the injury and because all their air got knocked from their lungs. They might step backwards, they might fall to their knees.

Like with all writing, you want to think in depth about the verbs you’re choosing for your action sequences. Action verbs are not interchangeable. The question of “what is the physical response to someone being punched?” is reliant on the type of punch and where the punch lands. In a broad sense, you need to consider the point of impact and how far that impact is off center. You can consider center as the center line running up the middle of your body, strikes to that center, particularly in the upper body, are more likely to knock an opponent off balance. Not every punch will destabilize an opponent, not every punch will move them in an obvious way. Strikes to the shoulder, to the arm, to the legs, will cause responses in those single targets. The lack of an immediate, obvious reaction in those areas doesn’t mean the strikes are worthless. Punching someone in the shoulder can make it more difficult for them to lift their arm, which hinders both attack and defense.

Samantha knocked Joe’s arm away. With her right hand, she punched him in the shoulder. She didn’t wait for him to flinch, backhanding him across the temple. Joe’s head snapped sideways, and he stumbled. Seizing Joe’s loose wrist, Samantha drove a roundhouse into his stomach.

“Knocked” gives the impression of something going flying. Samantha “punches” him in the shoulder, which is a straightforward straight punch. Then, because she’s close, she “backhands” him with the same hand. Due to the force coming sideways, his head moves in the direction of the force inflicted, and, because it’s off center and he wasn’t expecting it, he stumbles. Then, Samantha grabs the arm he left free and kicks him. This is an age old tactic that works better with a sidekick, but the general idea is that you hold onto your opponent while delivering a powerful blow so the force cannot be mitigated by them moving backwards. They have to stand there and take it.

In hand to hand combat, some measure of force delivered will be mitigated by movement and some will be absorbed by you on the moment of impact. This is why you lock your joints and muscles in the moment before the strike, and why you can injure yourself when hitting someone else. While these are technical details which will slow down your scene with experienced combatants, they become an important point with inexperienced ones. Inexperienced fighters will tense up too early or too late on strikes, resulting in them being slower and failing to put all the force they’ve generated by their momentum into their opponent. They will also stop their strike before or at their opponent’s body instead of striking through them. This limits their force projection and, again, halves what they put into an opponent. In context, this is what martial artists mean when they say beginners don’t hit very hard.

What you need to do is practice visualizing the scene you want, then finding the words to describe it. When writing fight sequences, familiarize yourself with much imagery regarding the subject as you can. I recommend searching YouTube for How To videos on various martial arts and paying close attention to what happens when these various martial artists strike pads. Even when you’re not looking at someone fighting another human being, seeing how the impact affects the pads can be instructive for describing different situations.

The answer to finding the right words is trying out different verbs and different descriptions until you find ones that evoke the imagery or feeling you want for your scene. Unfortunately, this latter half is part of being a writer. There’s no right way to do it. The authenticity of the sequence will come from how well you portray your physics on the page. Almost nothing you write will come out perfect off the cuff. Ultimately, in this case, practice makes perfect.

-Michi

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